While they confer about “de-conflicting” their bombing raids in Syria, U.S. and Russian military officials also might want to discuss what the word “terrorist” means.
That would be an easier discussion for the Russians, who began conducting airstrikes Wednesday, than the Americans, who’ve been bombing Syria for more than a year.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals, the definition of “terrorist,” when it comes to the increasingly turbulent Syrian civil war, is simple: anyone who uses violence to try to topple President Bashar Assad.
Assad is a dictator, but he’s Moscow’s dictator. Just as the late Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein was Washington’s dictator, for decades, before President George W. Bush turned against him and launched an ill-fated March 2003 invasion whose consequences are still playing out more than a dozen years later across the Middle East, from Syria and Iraq to Libya and Iran.
For President Barack Obama and his top military aides, it’s becoming more complicated by the day to say just who is a terrorist in Syria.
Like Moscow, Washington views some of the anti-Assad forces as terrorists, starting with the Islamic State militants.
But the United States’ uneasy alliances with Turkey and the elusive “moderate opposition groups” in Syria, along with the reluctance of Obama and Congress to get drawn further into that nation’s bloody disaster, require American leaders to engage in verbal jujitsu when asked if the U.S.-led air campaign is also targeting the Nusra Front, Ahrar al Shram and other al Qaida-linked groups.
“The fundamental problem is that the United States is trying to divorce its international anti-terrorism campaign from the rest of the Syrian civil war,” Christopher Kozak, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, told McClatchy. “That’s very difficult as we saw when the (U.S.-trained) New Syrian Force went in and just got obliterated by Nusra. The rebels want to fight the regime, not ISIS.
“The Russians have some leverage because they’re coming in with a position that’s more coherent,” he added. “Their anti-terrorism strategy is part of an endgame for ending the civil war, which is to protect the Assad regime.” ISIS is one of several acronyms for the Islamic State; ISIL is another.
Beneath their diverging views of who is a terrorist lies a more fundamental difference between Moscow and Washington: Russia traces the rise of the Islamic State to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq; the United States blames it on the brutal Assad rule that it blames for the deaths of more than 200,000 Syrians.
Despite Assad’s record, Russia is now backing his regime with air strikes. It bombed other forces Wednesday and Thursday before striking Islamic State targets Friday.
Russia fought Islamic extremists in the Chechnya region within its own borders in two wars covering more than a decade and ending in 2009.
A U.S. official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss intelligence matters, confirmed the most recent Russian raids.
“We believe that they’ve struck a couple of different places where ISIL is present today, both near (Islamic State headquarters in) Raqqa and Deir el Zour” in eastern Syria, the official told McClatchy.
After Russian warplanes began bombing Syria this week, reporters repeatedly asked Pentagon officials how they felt about the Kremlin targeting Assad foes other than the Islamic State. Just as repeatedly, the U.S. military spokesmen declined to answer the questions directly.
Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve in Baghdad, was asked via video conference about reports that Kurdish fighters in Syria, who have been the United States’ most effective ground force there against the Islamic State, welcomed Russia’s entry into the air wars.
“Our focus and our determination is to defeat ISIL,” Warren said. “If others are willing to work with us to defeat ISIL, then that is something that we are willing to welcome.”
Warren was asked to respond to Russian airstrikes against CIA-backed Syrians fighting to overthrow Assad.
“It’s an extraordinarily complex battlefield,” he said. “Now, what I’ll say is our focus is ISIL, and I’ll leave it there.”
At a separate briefing, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook deflected similar questions.
“The sooner the Russians can be focused on those efforts to try and go after ISIL, the better, and that’s the message we’re going to continue to deliver,” Cook said.
At a U.N. briefing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered a simple assessment when reporters asked him who the bad guys are in Syria.
4,052,723 The number of people who have fled Syria’s violence and registered as refugees with the United Nations.
Lavrov listed the Islamic State, Nusra “and other terrorist groups.” Asked to elaborate, he responded: “If it looks like a terrorist, it if acts like a terrorist, it it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist.”
In contrast, the U.S. Central Command, which runs American military operations in the Middle East, has been careful about how it describes the targets of U.S.-led airstrikes in both Syria and Iraq.
Virtually all of the targets spelled out by the Central Command in more than 7,100 airstrikes in the two countries have been Islamic State fighters, bases, vehicles, weapons or other equipment.
In one exception, on Nov. 6, 2014, the Central Command announced that U.S.-led warplanes had bombed elements of Nusra outside Sarmada in northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border.
Syrian opposition groups, including some that were U.S. supplied, protested vehemently.
“Rebel groups on the ground see Nusra as a partner,” Kozak said.
Since then, the Central Command has not cited Nusra even once as a bombing target. Instead, such strikes are described aimed at the Khorasan Group, a terminology that refers to a terrorist cell that has been housed with Nusra. In each instance, the Central Command uses specific terminology noting that the al Qaida-linked group is “plotting external attacks against the United States and our allies,” or a very similar version of that phrase.
In revealing last month that an American strike had killed David Drugeon, a one time French intelligence agent who’d defected to al Qaida, the Pentagon said: “Drugeon was a member of a network of veteran al Qaeda operatives, sometimes called the Khorasan Group, who are plotting attacks against the United States, its allies, and partners.”
For Syrian opposition groups, Kozak said, the Khorasan Group is a virtual fiction. They see it, he said, as the same as Nusra.
“The distinction between Nusra and the Khorasan Group is something the Pentagon has whipped up in order not to come out and say that we’re hitting Nusra,” Kozak said. “They want to parse that line in order not to be dragged into a conflict with Nusra as well as the Islamic State. Nusra is very effective. This (Obama) administration in particular is very careful about being sucked into more quagmires in the Middle East.”
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose